“I think the major factor and the major reason in my decision was the best opportunity for me to win and to win now and to win into the future also.”
The above quote is from LeBron James’s interview with ESPN in 2010. The Decision was hyped for weeks, the interview aired on primetime after a 30 minute tribute to King James.
After some awkward chit-chat with Jim Gray, James uttered the infamous declaration: “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”
Garish enough already, a few days later he proceeded to dance on stage in Miami with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh– all in uniform, all bragging about how many championships they were about to win together.
Contrast that with Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors this week. Durant posted his thoughts on The Player’s Tribune. His first paragraph reveals the reflective nature of this process, saying that he “understood cognitively that I was facing a crossroads in my evolution as a player and as a man.”
Then he makes his decision:
The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.
Durant proceeded to thank Oklahoma City for contributing to his growth so far as a person. He expressed appreciation for all the important relationships in the community and within the Thunder organization.
Both players faced frustrating situations with their first and only franchises. Neither player could quite get over the hump of a championship.
Criticism comes easily with these sorts of decisions, especially in sports. Loyalty is a virtue. Competitive integrity is a virtue. It’s hard to imagine, say, Michael Jordan joining the Bad Boy Pistons in 1989.
I see some key differences, though, both generationally and between Durant and James.
This is not the 80’s. Though trades have always shaped the league, player autonomy and team fluidity have increased, changing the culture of the NBA. The only franchise that truly has an identity right now is the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State is developing one.
Loyalty in the old sense is non-existent. Teams scapegoat fire a coach, who gets hired the next year by the next team. Players easily jump to the next contract, the next team.
Because of this, I applaud Durant’s move to a first-class organization with a philosophy of ball movement and unselfishness. For him, an opportunity to “contribute” and “grow.”
LeBron’s 2010 decision, on the other hand, was for “me to win,” to take “my talents” and combine them with other basketball mercenaries to build a super-team in Miami.
Additionally, his situation in Cleveland was unique– his loyalties were to a people; he was a hometown prodigy drafted to a historically tortured sports town. Not that he, as an individual, was bound to that situation forever. My criticism of LeBron has always been that his ego somehow manages to outshine his talents.
Even his heroic return rang hollow. Rather than express gratitude to Cleveland for welcoming him back, for forgiving and forgetting, for giving him the keys of the Cavalier organization, for building a contender, his response was a smug: I’m the best player in the world and I delivered on my promise bring you a championship. You’re welcome. Where’s my statue?
The Warriors with Kevin Durant might win a championship or two. But nothing about this decision hinges on that. It doesn’t feel like ring-chasing, and you can sense a deeper purpose in the craft of basketball within the Warrior organization.
I respect that.